Laura Fraser

Did It Happen or Not? Investigating Child Abuse

Ed's Note: In order to protect the privacy of the children profiled in this article, the identities of the clients and the location of the advocacy center have been changed.

The first thing you notice when you walk into the Children's Advocacy Center in this mid-sized Midwestern town are the teddy bears. They're lined up on wicker bookshelves and tucked into the corners of flowered couches and chairs. They seem to welcome children inside a place that is warm, cozy -- and safe.

Most of the children who walk into this center are scared. They're here because someone -- a parent, baby-sitter, daycare provider, family friend or doctor -- suspects they may be the victim of sexual abuse. The allegations, based on medical reports, children's disclosures or sexual acting-out at home or in daycare, have to be investigated by a team of people that may include social service workers, police detectives, prosecutors and a doctor.

In this child-friendly atmosphere -- where kids can play with toys, eat snacks in the kitchen, see a friendly doctor and then tell their story to an adult in a room with child-sized chairs and a doll's house -- the hope is that a child who has been hurt won't have to endure any more fear or pain.

Before this center opened, children in the area who were suspected victims of abuse often had to be interviewed over and over again by people from different social service agencies, sometimes in stark police interrogation rooms, and sometimes at school, where other children knew something was up.

"A child could be interviewed three or four times," says "Melissa Stone," the executive director of this Child and Family Advocacy Program. "Imagine how intimidating and horrible that would be. It's revictimizing children." At the center, a child has to tell a very difficult story only once, interviewed in a playroom by a trained child forensics interviewer, and videotaped through a two-way mirror. Across the hall is a bright and cheerful examining room -- a far cry from a chaotic emergency room, where many child victims are taken -- where a pediatrician who specializes in knowing the signs of sexual abuse sees the child right away. There's a playroom for kids and a kitchen where parents who are not suspects in the cases can be comforted or counseled by a staff social worker.

"The place is so comfy," says Stone, "that sometimes the kids don't want to go back home."

Facts About Child Sexual Abuse

What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is forced, tricked, or coerced sexual behavior between a young person and an adult. It may consist of nudity, disrobing, genital exposure, "peeping Tom" behavior, kissing, fondling, masturbation, oral-genital contact, child pornography, penetration with a finger, and vaginal or anal intercourse. The behavior must have a sexual intent: a baby-sitter washing a two-year-old's private parts during the course of a normal bath is not sexual abuse.

Who is vulnerable?
Approximately 115,000 cases of sexual abuse enter child protective services caseloads each year.

Most children are abused by adults who are related to them or known to their families. With girls, from one-third to one-half of perpetrators were relatives. With boys, one-tenth of abusers were related. There has been a recent increase in the number of juveniles who have committed sexually aggressive acts against other children.

In 80 to 95 percent of cases, child abuse perpetrators are male.

The most vulnerable age for sexual abuse is between 7 and 13 years, although cases are documented from infancy.

Girls are sexually abused three times more often than boys.

Sexual abuse happens to children in all socioeconomic and education levels, and across all racial and cultural groups. Children who are left alone at home are more likely to become a victim of sexual abuse.

Across the country, there are some 300 Children's Advocacy Centers. These centers are easier not only on children, but on law enforcers. The centers began in the 1980s -- the first was a renovated Victorian cottage in Huntsville, Alabama -- after several notoriously complicated child abuse cases, such as the McMartin preschool case. In this case, allegations muddied and multiplied as more and more interviewers talked to the children, making it clear that investigations needed to be limited and coordinated in one place.

When investigations spread to many locations and interviewers, children often become increasingly insecure and scared, causing them to withdraw, or spin tales in order to please their persistent interviewers. Funded by private donations, so the staff remain neutral in any investigation, the centers have developed from safe places to interview children to centers for wider community education and training about how to recognize and prevent child abuse.

The center makes cases of child abuse easier to prosecute, says "Elizabeth Kettle," the District Attorney in this town. In most child sexual abuse cases there are no witnesses and no medical evidence; the cases come down to a child's word against an adult's, and if the child's disclosure is confused or changes, it's very tough to prosecute. Children are more likely to disclose abuse in a safe and comfortable environment, Kettle says, and their videotaped interviews are harder for defense attorneys to dismiss. Because the interviewers are trained to be neutral -- "I always pretend I have a defense attorney over my left shoulder," says "Joan Harleman," the staff interviewer -- they are less likely to ask the kinds of leading questions that attorneys can object to in court. More cases settle early, and so fewer children have to endure going to trial -- telling their story once again, in a courtroom full of strangers.

In this town, the child abuse cases are much like those anywhere in the country. The center sees about one case of suspected child abuse a day. The people who walk in the door are from families of all income and education levels. Most of the accused perpetrators are not strangers to the victims, but relatives and acquaintances: in this county, over half of alleged perpetrators are family members, a third are acquaintances such as a mother's boyfriend, one in ten are people the children trust (such as neighbors or friends' parents or grandparents), and only six percent are strangers. Forty-four percent of perpetrators are juveniles, who have been abused themselves, now acting out by molesting younger children, who in turn may make the problem snowball if the cycle isn't stopped. The victims are usually very young; in this county last year, a third were under five, and a third were six to ten years old.

But not every case that comes through the center ends up being sexual abuse: in many instances, an interview and exam reveal that the suspected abuse probably never occurred, and parents leave with some information and counseling -- and greatly eased minds. Over the course of a week at this Children's Advocacy Center, a typical variety of cases came in.

Case One

At 10:00, a married couple and their two daughters, ages two and six, come into the center. A social services worker, "Sandra Calcagno," has already briefed the staff about the case: The parents brought the six-year-old in to see the family physician because she had redness and swelling in her genital area. The physician believed the genital injuries might be consistent with sexual abuse in the older girl, and he had previously seen the younger girl for suspicious genital bleeding; under the law, he reported his findings to the department of social services. No one knows who the perpetrator might be; it could be the dad. Joan Harleman, the social worker at the center, greets the parents and leads the children to the playroom, where they sit on a giant stuffed dog and make beaded necklaces. Calcagno and the center's physician, "Kelly Rosenquist" ("Dr. Kelly"), lead the parents into a comfortable interview room.

The parents are blond, well-groomed, outdoorsy types in fleece jackets. They don't look like parents who could abuse their children, but as Dr. Kelly warned earlier, looks are deceiving. "You find sexual abuse in all kinds of families," she says. The parents are openly nervous.

"We're just swirling," says the mother.

"We've never been involved in anything like this," says the father, trying to control himself. "I don't want to blast the system. If it helps one kid, it's good, but I feel targeted."

Calcagno assures them that she doesn't have any preconceived ideas about what happened. "The doctor called with a report of a swollen clitoris, and we need to go over it." She begins the interview asking the parents what the children know about safety. "They know that no one is to touch any part that the bathing suit covers up," says the mom. Calcagno nods. They go over the family situation -- dad's an architect, mom works part-time, the family recently moved, the kids changed daycare. Then they talk about the children's medical histories, including the findings.

The father shifts uncomfortably. "I can't help but feel accused," he says. "The physician's assistant said it's sexual abuse, and in 99% of the cases, it's the male in the house. That's me."

Calcagno and Dr. Kelly assure him they're going to get to the bottom of what happened, and that the physician's assistant was talking out of line. "It could be a long list of things," says Dr. Kelly. "It could be anything from a urethal prolapse to sexual abuse. I'm just checking them off." They explain how the older daughter, "Lisa," will be interviewed and examined (the two-year-old, too young to disclose anything, will have a medical exam).

Calcagno greets Lisa, and explains that she has a special room to play in. In the interview room, with videotape rolling, the child gets settled with paper and crayons, and Calcagno establishes a rapport with her, asking questions about the pictures she's coloring and her family. She establishes the child's ability to understand whether an object is over, under, or on the side of another object (to be sure there's no confusion about what it means when a child uses those terms in a description). She then checks her answers to questions she already knows -- such as her dad's occupation -- and determines her ability to tell a story with details, such as going to Grandma's house for Christmas. Calcagno makes sure the child can distinguish between truth and a lie -- is it true that you have a brother, or false; is it true that you're smart? -- and makes a deal with her to tell the truth. She tells Lisa that her job is to make sure children are safe, and asks her if she knows what being safe means. "Don't go into people's cars," she answers, "Don't cross the street without a parent, and mom and dad don't leave us at home alone."

The red-headed child switches to playing with puppets, and Calcagno asks why she went to the doctor recently.

"Sometimes when I pee it burns," says the girl, matter-of-factly.

Calcagno then turns to the topic of private parts. She asks if the girl knows about keeping her "privates" safe. "Don't let anyone touch you there," Lisa says. Would she tell if someone did? "Yes," she says. Would you tell if mom and dad did? "Maybe." "Would you tell me?" asks Calcagno. "Maybe." The chatty red-headed girl is starting to become uncomfortable. Calcagno brings out drawings of outline of bodies, and asks Lisa to point out and tell her about different body parts, including privates. Lisa cooperates. When Calcagno asks her if anyone has ever touched her private parts, she says her mom and dad, giving her a bath. Anyone else? Lisa shakes her ponytail no. Anyone mean? No. Eventually Calcagno finds out that Lisa's privates have been itching, and she's been scratching, which hurts. When she asks how things are at home with her parents, the bright little girl sighs and replies, "Asi-asi," using the Spanish phrase for "so-so," which she's picked up at school. She openly tells Calcagno that they moved recently, and her parents fight sometimes and she's worried.

After the interview, Lisa sees Dr. Kelly, who finished her exam on the two-year-old, where everything looked normal. "I'm going to check your whole body and make sure you're healthy," she tells Lisa. She lifts her stethoscope and checks her heart. "Anyone ever touch you here?" she asks. "No," says the girl. She checks her ears and belly, and asks the same question. "Now I'm going to check your niney," she says, using the girls' word for her genitals. She covers her up with a blanket to stay private, and asks her to sit like a frog. "Ooo, that looks sore," she says. "Does that hurt?" The child nods. "Sometimes my niney gets itchy," she says. Dr. Kelly asks a few more questions, pulls the girl's pants up, and then offers her a stuffed animal. Lisa leaves the room, happy with a big stuffed dog.

Dr. Kelly confers with Calcagno. "I think what this all comes down to," she says, "Is a case of pinworms." Calcagno nods: from the girl's interview, she doesn't suspect abuse.

They meet again with the parents. "It's been delightful to see your kids," says Dr. Kelly. "They're so adorable and articulate." The parents seem to breathe easier. Dr. Kelly explains that she believes the girl has pinworms, and that both may have an unusual medical condition -- benign familial hematuria -- that could explain the bleeding. She recommends some medication, and refers them to a specialist. "I feel comfortable saying I don't suspect sexual abuse," says Dr. Kelly. The parents exchange glances and seem to instantly relax. Calcagno mentions to the parents that their child is a little stressed by their fighting and the recent move. "I think you might need to work on the fighting," she says, and offers to refer them to a counselor. She ushers them out. "I know this has been a hard day."

Case Two

This morning, Sandra Calcagno brings in a seven-year-old girl wearing worn, ill-fitting T-shirt and shorts, who was recently taken from her mother's custody because of drug charges against the mother. The most complicated cases of alleged sexual abuse are those where children are caught in a custody case or between warring parents, Calcagno says. This girl is living with a foster parent, and the mother is worried that the dad, who visits, may be sexually abusing her. The girl has been masturbating excessively, and acting out sexually with her foster sister, touching her inappropriately in the bath and pulling down her pants.

In the interview room, Calcagno teaches "Jessica" to fish for fruit loops in a bowl. She asks the preliminary questions about truth and lies, determining if she can count, and other tests. She makes a deal that if Jessica tells the truth, she'll also answer any questions she has truthfully.

"Has my mom been drinking cocaine?" the girl demands. Calcagno says she doesn't know, and asks Jessica if she's worried. Jessica tells a story about how her mom drank cocaine when a guy gave her some in her tea. "She loves tea," she says. Then she failed a drug test because she drank the tea.

When Calcagno starts asking questions about whether Jessica understands what it means to be safe, she becomes agitated, swishing the water out of the bowl. She says no one has ever touched her private parts, except her dad and her foster mother. Calcagno asks whether her dad touched her when he was taking bath, or other times. She asks how he touched her in a bath, and she says he washed her with a sponge. Jessica then blurts out how her dad broke her mom's nose, and then he got a new wife. She saw them taking off their clothes, and they told her she shouldn't have peeked.

After that, Jessica refuses to answer questions for awhile. Calcagno asks her if she pulled down her pants at home. "I wanted to show my new underwear to my foster sister," she says. She gets up from the fishing game and goes over to the doll house, where she pulls all the furniture out violently, making it a "new house." She says she feels bad living where she is now. "Everything's confusing," she tells Calcagno. "I'm getting more confused every second." She says she wants to go back to living with her mother.

Calcagno tries again, asking if anyone has ever touched her on her privates. "I told you about that," Jessica snarls. "Nobody except my mom and dad."

Whatever is wrong with this child -- and there is plenty -- she isn't going to make a disclosure about sexual abuse today, whether because she doesn't want to get her dad in trouble, she wants to go back to living with her mom, or because nothing happened. "In a lot of cases, you never know," says Calcagno, who will continue to follow the case and recommend that the girl goes into play therapy, where in several sessions of play, she may become comfortable enough to disclose or act out what's happening to her.

Case Three

A department of social services social worker, "Henry Singer," arrives with a blond five-year-old girl, with a recently-brushed ponytail and a bright green outfit, and her parents, casually dressed professionals in their late �30s. The girl woke up from a nap at daycare complaining that her private parts were hurting, and she made a statement that her eight-year-old brother did it. In an interview, the child's parents told Singer they'd asked about why her genitals were irritated, and first she said she fell, then she said a girl at school did it. "They're frustrated, because they talked to her about crying wolf, but if their son has done something, they want to know about it," says Singer.

Singer interviews the girl while she plays with colored ribbons and draws. After establishing that she knows true from false and doing other tests, he asks her about her family. "Krista" moves to the doll's house and starts playing a game where members of her family -- some made up -- move from room to room while she commands them in a sing-song voice to go here or there. Singer eventually asks Krista if anyone has ever touched her private parts. In the same dreamy voice, she tells a confused yet detailed story about a girl at her school who touched her privates over her clothes while she was walking. Then Devon touched Michael's, and Michael ran over and touched Emily, and pretty soon, according to her account, everyone was touching everyone's privates in the coatroom while she was peeking. Singer asks again if anyone ever touched her private parts. She drops her complicated story. "No, except "Alison" one time," she says. Singer asks if her eight-year-old brother ever touched her privates. "No, never in his whole life," she says, emphatically. "Four people can touch my privates: A nurse, a doctor, my mom or my dad."

After a medical exam, it turns out that the girl has an infection that is causing her to itch quite a bit. Singer suspects that she's a perfectionistic, bright kid under pressure, and she's making up stories to deflect her anxiety about itching, which causes her to masturbate more than is normal at her age. He tells the parents to take her to a doctor, check in with the daycare teacher about the other kids, and monitor her play with her brother. "Her story was too convoluted," says Singer. "And there were no red flags. I'm pretty sure there's been no touching, except maybe once by a friend at school."

Case Four

Detective "Shelley Michaels" arrives at the center with a tidy, weary-looking mother and her four energetic girls. The eight-year-old, "Amy," told her mother that her friend's grandfather had touched her private parts under her clothes. The mother immediately called the police. Now she's sitting in the kitchen with a counselor while her girls play and watch a video in the other room. Last night, the mother says, she went to the police station to see where her child would be interviewed. "It was a big concrete building, like Gotham City," she says. She was relieved to be at the advocacy center instead.

The detective asks Amy preliminary questions, identifying parts of the body, and has her tell her what happened to Snow White to see how she tells a story. The long-haired girl is serious and cooperative. Michaels asks what happened when she was playing a couple of days ago.

Amy tells a detailed story about going to the recreation center with her 5-year-old sister, the sister's friend, and the friend's Grandpa. After playing, they went upstairs to the pool and the exercise room to use the bathroom. They played on the equipment, and while Amy was on the treadmill, hidden from sight from the other girls behind a big weight machine, Grandpa stood next to her and told her to turn around and walk backwards. "He touched me where he's not supposed to," she says. "He put his hand down my shorts." The detective asks if she said anything, and the girl shakes her head no. She doesn't want to talk about it.

The detective rolls some play dough. Slowly -- like pulling teeth -- the story comes out. Michaels asks how the man touched Amy, what she was wearing, how his hand got inside her underwear, and what he did. "He put his finger up my butt," she says, ashamed. "How long did it last?" Amy can barely speak. "A while."

Amy describes how the man kissed her later, while he was learning down, out of sight, near the candy machine. A few days earlier, it comes out, he had put his hand under her undershirt and rubbed. Michaels asks her if she told her mother the first time.

"No," says Amy. And why did she tell this time? "The first time, I thought he would stop. The second time I knew he would do it again," she says. Michaels asks how it feels now that she finally told her mom. "A little bit better," says Amy.

Later, Michaels says Amy's statement is strong. She'll go back to the pool to see if there were witnesses, interview the other girls, and try to corroborate all the details -- the position of the candy machine, the weight machines, the type of car he drove. "Juries want evidence -- more than just what an 8-year-old says." If the details check out, she'll make an arrest.

Once Grandpa is arrested, the case will likely be settled out of court. If he is a previous offender, he may be put in jail. If it's the first time, it could be probation and treatment, registering for the rest of his life as a sex offender wherever he lives. "The suspect is in his sixties," says Michaels, "I'd be surprised if this is the first time it's happened."

This case is unusual, says Michaels, in that the girl told her mother right away. Usually, children feel too embarrassed, ashamed, or scared to say anything. "This mom had talked to the girls about safety, touching, and telling," says Michaels.

What's not unusual is that the alleged perpetrator was a trusted family friend. "Parents always do a good job of talking about strangers," says Michaels. "Every kid knows to keep away from strangers. But they've never been told to be afraid of Grandpa, Grandma, or a family friend. Usually it's someone who knows the kids, and befriends them."

Amy is back in the TV room, bouncing on the couch with her sisters. As the family gets ready to leave, she pauses to pick out her stuffed animal. Amy hugs a teddy bear and goes back home.


Advocacy Centers -- Community centers for child abuse investigations:

- National Network of Children's Advocacy Centers; 800-239-9950 or 202-639-0597;

- National Children's Advocacy Center (Hunstville, AL); 205-533-0531

- Southern Regional Children's Advocacy Center; 800-747-8122 or 704-285-9588

- Midwest Regional Children's Advocacy Center; 773-363-6700 x421

- Northeast Regional Children's Advocacy Center; 800-662-4124 or 215-387-9500

- Western Regional Children's Advocacy Center; 800-582-2203 or 719-543-0380

Child Abuse Hotlines:

Child Help USA: 800-FOR A CHILD;

Prevent Child Abuse America: 800-835-2671;

Stop It Now: 888-PREVENT

To Report Suspected Child Sexual Abuse

- Call your local Department of Social Services

The Hard Body Sell

In a Web site photograph for the Beverly Hills, California, Barron Centers Body Recontouring and Male Enhancement Clinic, a smooth-skinned, muscular man embraces a lovely woman reclining in the grass. The site is advertising liposuction and penile enlargement surgery. "The positive results are the same for virtually every person: greater self-esteem, a new level of self-confidence, the ability to feel your best," promises the copy. "This improved self-image is evident not only in your sexual life, but in most other arenas." Below that, a large banner announces: "New Lower Fees."Talk about a hard sell. Welcome to the macho world of cosmetic surgery. Once the hush-hush domain of aging society women, the fast-growing market for cosmetic procedures increasingly includes male baby boomers. Over the past five years, the number of men having liposuction has tripled, according to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, and the number having face-lifts has doubled. In 1997, men spent almost $130 million on liposuction, face-lifts, nose reshaping, and eyelid surgery, up from $88 million in 1992. (Women, by comparison, spent $882 million in '97, up from $479 million in '92.) "It's definitely a growing trend," says San Francisco-based plastic surgeon Corey Maas. "After all these years of guys walking around with big beer-bellies and wrinkly faces while women are looking better and better, finally, men are catching on."Men are responding to a consumer culture that is less and less forgiving toward those who are not young, trim, and attractive. Bombarded with advertising images of perfect men, they're having manicures, dyeing their hair, concealing blemishes, and getting facials. Cosmetic companies have concocted macho-sounding campaigns for their men's product lines, and sales of men's grooming supplies are increasing 11 percent per year, totaling more than $3 billion in 1996.Cosmetic surgery, with ads promising quick and easy high-tech results, is being marketed to men the way sports cars and stereo equipment are sold -- as accessories to make them more attractive, powerful, and masculine. "It's extremely important for the working man to appear energetic and youthful," says a Web site ad for the Palm Beach Plastic Surgery Center. "You may feel young and ready to go, but your sagging lids, loose neck, or thinning hair may portray a less vibrant impression than you would like." As one male University of California at Berkeley professor who had facial plastic surgery puts it, "If it's available, and it makes me look better, and I have the money, why not? It's not any stupider than going out and buying a Jaguar."Also, women are no longer settling for chubby, balding executives. They don't have to. "It used to be that men responded to physical beauty and women responded to power and status," says David Sarwer, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Human Appearance. "Now women have their own power and status, and they're looking for more attractive men."Increasingly, men are coming in for antiaging treatments," continues Sarwer. "The baby boomers, who have been the generation on the forefront of so many social changes, are now marching to the cosmetic surgeon's office."In some ways, this new trend among men finally validates what women have always known: Looking good is hard work. But it's also ironic. Feminists who had hoped that gaining equality in the workplace would mean they could stop worrying so much about appearance are finding that men are worrying more about their own -- and presumably haven't learned any lessons from women's body-image issues. Of the millions of people diagnosed with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia each year, almost 10 percent are men, and silicone calf and pectoral implants -- to beef up the less-than-muscular leg or chest -- are also gaining popularity among men. Cosmetic surgeons are quick to point out that they don't use gel, so the leakage problems women have had with breast implants do not occur.Still, men are far from being as anxious or depressed as women about their looks. "There's definitely more emphasis on men's looks, bodies, and weight than in any time in the past, but I don't think men will ever feel the intense pressure to be trim and attractive that women face every day," says Debbie Then, a California-based social psychologist who studies appearance. But with cosmetic surgery ads that emphasize self-esteem, it can't be long before men start taking their physical imperfections to heart.Indeed, men are growing more insecure. A 1997 nationwide Psychology Today survey showed men's escalating dissatisfaction with their abdomens (63 percent), weight (52 percent), muscle tone (45 percent), overall appearance (43 percent), and chest (38 percent). In each area, respondents' dissatisfaction had risen at least 10 percentage points from survey results in 1986.Psychologists also have identified in men a disorder known as body dysmorphia, which involves extreme, exaggerated dissatisfaction with body parts and appearance -- for men that most often means body build, hair loss, and genital size. Men with the disorder will resort to extensive stints at the gym (five to six hours a day), steroids, or implants.Whether or not the problem is between men's ears, cosmetic surgeons are doing their best to help men improve what's on top of their heads -- and between their legs. In 1996, men spent about $12 million on penile enlargements. Privately, many plastic surgeons say the results are rarely impressive -- and often dangerous. Dr. Martin Resnick, chair of the Department of Urology at Case Western Reserve University and secretary of the American Urological Association, says that "penile enlargement has not been shown to give patients the degree of enlargement they desire. And in some cases, the procedure has led to infection and deformity."In 1996, the Medical Board of California (MBC) suspended the license of a cosmetic surgeon who had advertised that patients could gain an average of 2 inches in length and an increase in girth of up to 50 percent through penile procedures; of the more than 4,500 enlargements he performed -- as many as 10 a day -- more than 100 patients complained of excruciating pain.A more common procedure men seek, however, is liposuction for love handles. While liposuction is promoted as safe, a recent study by doctors in California showed that one in 5,000 patients dies as a result of the procedure, usually after removing large volumes of fat. Robert del Junco, a head and neck surgeon who leads the MBC's commission to investigate cosmetic surgery, says poorly trained doctors -- in an effort to make more money in the managed care environment -- do the procedures after only a weekend seminar's worth of training. "There are a lot of marketing schemes out there that work whether or not a doctor is qualified," says del Junco.But despite the risks, it's likely that more men will undergo cosmetic surgery, especially as the technology shortens recovery times and the procedures become less intrusive. Men are seeking lunchtime fixes: a collagen injection to smooth out wrinkles, a dermabrasion to reduce blemishes.The effort to look young and attractive is going beyond gender, as our culture becomes more androgynous and appearance becomes paramount. Obsession with appearance is likely to become less a matter of gender than of class; people will spend whatever they can afford to save their looks.Inevitably, more men will develop the kinds of body and appearance neuroses that many women have suffered for years: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and general self-loathing for not measuring up to an impossible ideal. It may disappoint women, who have counted on men to be less obsessive about facial flaws and extra pounds -- real or imagined. But we'll be sympathetic. We know how it feels.REQUIRED TAG: Reprinted with permission from Mother Jones magazine, copyright 1999, Foundation for National Progress.

Republican War Against Women

Tanya Melich, whose father was a Utah state senator, has worked for the Republican party for as long as she can remember. As a behind-the-scenes campaign organizer, a convention delegate, a political strategist, and a co-founder of the Republican women's movement, she has devoted her life to the party of Lincoln and the principles it stands for.Until recently, that is. As a moderate and a woman, Melich pushed within the party to maintain its traditional support for women's equality and individual rights by fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment and women's rights to keep abortion a private choice. But over the years, she found, women's voices in the party were silenced by male party officials who felt they were getting in the way of a broader strategy. That strategy, argues Melich in her new book The Republican War Against Women: An Insider's Report from Behind the Lines (Bantam Books), has been to court extremists and religious fundamentalists at the expense of women. She details how the GOP used a misogynist strategy of fanning the fears of the women's movement in order to gain the votes of religious fundamentalists and Southern conservatives. The strategy succeeded so well that now the party is dominated by religious extremists, and moderates like Melich are finding themselves out in the cold.The 1992 campaign was so dominated by the religious right that Melich could no longer stomach the political process. A Bush delegate from New York, she turned in her credentials early, and, disgusted with her party, went home and worked instead for Clinton. She says that the extremists in power now, led by Newt Gingrich, have gone so far that they will eventually be the downfall of the party. Moderates like Melich who are leaving the party have not become Democrats, though; for now, they're politically homeless. Laura Fraser talked to Melich about the upcoming election, the GOP, and the politics of meanness.Q: How is it that Republicans, who've always believed that you should keep the government out of your back pocket and out of your bedroom, have allowed anti-choice extremists to take over the party?A: Economic issues are more important to many Republicans. And for many political people, their political party affiliation is similar to the religion they were born into. When the issues change, as they have, it's hard for people to let go of the party. They feel, as I did, that they want to fight from within.We shouldn't even be having a battle over abortion in this country. One of the Republicans philosophies has always been you don't have a law unless you have to have it. You don't need laws saying that a woman has to check with her legislator before she decides whether or not she's going to have a baby.But we pro-choice Republicans kept getting beaten over the head. A lot of Republicans I know will stay and fight it out. I just couldn't go through another cycle. I had to leave the party.Q: George Bush comes across as the real villain in your book.A: He is. This is a man who was considered the leader of a moderate point of view. But he was much more interested in becoming President of the United States; he would do whatever he had to do to get himself to get himself elected. The coalitions that were most valuable to him were the coalitions on the right. He wasn't about to get himself into a battle supporting women's policies.The key turning point in the party was when George Bush was selected to be Reagan's vice president and he capitulated on the issues of the Equal Rights Amendment and women's right to choose. He became a Reaganite through-and-through, and it marked the end of a time when moderate and old-guard party conservatives would support women's issues. We thought if we elected Bush we could make some changes once he was in office. But he moved further and further to the extremes on the social issues.Q: In your book you describe the Republican's war against women as an outgrowth of their racist strategy against civil rights in the '60s.A: The civil rights movement unhinged a lot of people, and made them very fearful of what would happen next. When the women's movement appeared on the scene in the early '70s, it was very easy for Republicans who were looking to pick up votes from Southern Democrats to translate the fear that had come from the backlash to the civil rights movement to the fear that was developing over what the women's movement would mean.They played on that fear very effectively. The first battle was over the ERA. One of the most interesting things about that fight was the partnership between [anti-ERA organizer] Phyllis Schlafly and North Carolina's democratic senator Sam Ervin. As chairman of the senate Watergate hearings, Ervin had an honorable reputation, and his argument that 'ladies should be ladies,' opposing the ERA in order to protect and glorify what he thought was the essence of womanhood, made sense to women who didn't want to give up what they thought were the privileges of being a woman. It became clear to the New Right that as the anti-ERA movement grew, with Schlafly, Ervin, and religious leaders, that it was an effective force to build power.At the same time, the movement to legalize abortion had been moving along since the late '60s. Independently of what was happening in the south, the Catholic Church was organizing in a way it never had before. This opened up another avenue for political recruits.Q: You give Schlafly a lot of credit for turning the Republican Party to the extreme religious right.A: Schlafly, a devout Catholic, turned out to be the one who put together this coalition of southern fundamentalist religious groups, people who had been afraid of integration and civil rights, and Catholics. She's been very, very powerful. She has a strong intellect and a strong sense of what she believes. Her husband was able to provide financially for her to go out and lead a political movement. She also had some experience in the Republican party, and knew how politics works.Q: It's ironic that she's led a dynamic full-time career in order to work to keep women at home. What's the psychology of these religious right-wing women?A: They psychology is that there's a natural order to things, the woman is the bearer of the children, and she obeys her husband. That's what the Bible says, and that's the way it's supposed to be. The approach that the religious right and Schlafly takes is essentially medieval. Schlafly and the other women go out and participate because they're going to protect the way of life that they believe in. Once it's protected, they can go back home.Q: Is that true of the Republican freshman congresswomen?A: It's my impression that's the case. Of the eight who were elected, Sue Kelly, who's a pro-choice Republican from New York, is an exception. Enid Waldholtz is a corporate lawyer who acts like a feminist, not like someone who, when the day is over, is going to go back home for good. But when she had her five-hour news conference she talked that way.Q: Don't politicians on the extreme right understand the economic reality that most women have to work?A: Nationally, the Republican party favors some women over others. The party of Lincoln started out as an egalitarian party. Everyone was equal and you were judged on your merit, and you weren't going to pass laws saying some people got more favors than others. But now you have a point of view that says that some women are more favorable than others. The woman who stays home is a better woman the women who goes out to work, and the woman who supports the pro-life position is best of all.There has been some recognition by the New Right that some women have to work. The next question is how to help families, with public versus private finance of childcare. Gingrich's people think the problem can only be solved through private sources. Ronald Reagan was talking about that in '80 and it hasn't happened, and it won't happen because the problem is too big.Q: It's ironic that while the male Republican candidates espouse the family values rhetoric, most of them are divorced. James Carville has said he hopes to make an issue of that in the campaign.A: You mean they're hypocrites? Sure. Again, it's a medieval view of the world, male privilege.Q: Does someone like Newt Gingrich really believe that the nation is disintegrating because women are working outside the home and leaving their families, or is that just strategy?A: I wish I knew. All we have to go on are the actions we've seen over the years. His first campaign was based on a misogynist strategy, and he's still misogynist. But I don't believe, given that he's a student of history, that his base of philosophy stopped in the middle ages. He'll probably change his stance on reproductive rights for pragmatic reasons, unlike some of the other people in his coalition.The effect of his budget, regardless, has been devastating to women. All of the budget bills had anti-abortion riders. His attitudes toward poor women, and his unwillingness to support child welfare programs, are clearly misogynist. Who takes care of the kids in these programs? Women. The Meals on Wheels programs -- who are most of the elderly? Again, women. The list goes on and on. The programs they're fighting over take very, very modest amounts of the total budget. But they make a huge difference to women.Q: Aren't these anti-woman policies starting to take a toll on the party?A: The choice issue was definitely one of the reasons why Bush lost in T92.Q: Doesn't that give a message to Republicans running now?A: They'll say that they won in '94. They ran NRA, right-to-life candidates, and they won the congress for the first time since the '50s. Why shouldn't they continue in the same direction they're going?I'd say first of all, a lot of people didn't vote, second the women's vote was a lot smaller than the men's vote, and third, people weren't quite sure what they were getting. They wanted change, but not the kind of change that meant they couldn't get a student loan for their kid to go to college, or that the money the federal government was giving them to have their elderly parent in a nursing home was going to be cut in half.Q: What do you think about moderate Republicans, like Christine Whitman, who are pro-choice but campaign for people who are anti-choice?A: When you're elected to be governor of a state under a particular party there's a certain amount of loyalty you have to hold to your party. That's the traditional fight between principle and expediency that goes on all the time.Q: Will there be a big blood-letting among the Republicans at the convention in San Diego?A: The conflicts in the party right now are between the New Right/religious right people and the old right, which is Bob Dole. The moderates are no longer important in the party. So far, Dole has gone along with whatever the religious right wants in order to get the nomination. The question is, if he gets the delegates, what does he have to give away between April and August in order to get everybody together?'96 is going to be a very significant election. Because if we end up with someone who has a viewpoint like Newt Gingrich is in the White House, wow. Think of what happened to women and to the pro-choice movement under George Bush, and then imagine what would happen under Gingrich.Q: You hoped Colin Powell would run?A: Absolutely. Then we would've had someone we could've worked with, a leader with whom we could've fought these issue out in the party.Q: A lot of people don't remember a Republicanism before Reagan. To them, the party is an extreme right-wing party.A: That's one of the reasons I wrote the book. I felt that my kids' generation needs to know what it used to be.The party has veered so far off the center that they can't continue like this. They have to move back toward the center. If they don't, we'll be seeing another party.Q: Why has Hillary Clinton been such a lightning rod for GOP abuse? In your book you compared her with the treatment Betty Ford got for being outspoken.A: It's very difficult for male politicians to deal with strong first ladies. Nancy Reagan was criticized, too. This has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans. It has to do with gender politics.

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